Pure emotion around heritage, craftsmanship and innovation.
A marriage of superior craftsmanship and
age-old tradition: Montecristi hats.
Angelica Oschatz, founder and owner of The Hattitude,
safeguards and promotes the cultural heritage from Ecuador.
Forty-four threads per inch, the finest material and a whole ten months of production. Although this sounds as exciting as the construction of a Ferrari, it actually refers to another exquisite luxury product: the Montecristi Royal – the absolute premium version of the straw hat. But it does not have too much to do with straw. The Panama hat – the category to which the Montecristi Royal belongs, but which is actually misnamed; more on this in the next section – is made from the plant Carludovica palmata. It thrives in the jungle under the burning hot equatorial sun, in what is called the eternal forest on the coast of Ecuador. This is where the best palm leaves are harvested and then boiled in water until they are soft and white. Nine of the best branches are needed to make one Montecristi. Weavers then process the resistant yet soft natural fibres into a hat in a meticulous 15-step process. Angelica Oschatz deliberately puts her faith in women’s power here, as she tells us: “I took the time to find the most talented weavers in Montecristi – they are mostly women. They make wonderful pieces in the traditional way in their homes.”
400 YEARS OLD
Panama hat weaving is a 400-year-old Ecuadorian tradition. And that immediately reveals why the Panama hat is going by a false name. The first time the real country of origin, Ecuador, was confused with Panama was in 1855, when the sombrero de paja toquilla intended for Napoleon III was shipped from Panama. The delivery marked with Panama as the place of shipment led to the false conclusion that its contents – the hats – were also from Panama. From then on, the French considered Panama to be the origin of this type of hat. In fact, resourceful businessmen also started producing the hats in Panama. Business was booming thanks to exports directly from Panama and the arriving gold rush prospectors who needed a hat to shield themselves from the sun. And in the 19th century, the US imported goods from South America only from one central collection and customs point: Panama. This is why Americans simply called the hats “Panama hats”. When US President Theodore Roosevelt wore an Ecuadorian toquilla straw hat during a tour of the Panama Canal in 1906, the photographs went around the world and definitively defined the present name Panama hat. But it is wrong to think that a Montecristi hat is the same as a Panama hat, as Angelica explains: “Unlike the often industrially produced Panama hat, a Montecristi is made entirely by hand – using the same ancient processes as hundreds of years ago and a natural fibre from a wild plant, making it a sustainable and environmentally friendly product.”
A MATTER CLOSE TO THE HEART
Angelica has always loved unusual hats. And the Montecristi is one of the most fascinating: it evokes a sense of the Caribbean, cigar smoke and revolutionary romanticism. Although fine hats are also woven in other parts of Ecuador, Montecristi is the cradle of the finest straw hat weaving in the world. Montecristi hats are the most refined of straw hats, coveted for their exquisite craftsmanship and natural fibres by royals like Prince Charles and Prince Harry, as well as Caroline of Monaco and Princess Mary of Denmark, heads of state like Winston Churchill, writers like Ernest Hemingway and celebrities like Johnny Depp or Paul Newman. But Angelica does not only want to cater to this image. Sustainability, fairness and social responsibility are much more important to her. That is why she founded her company The Hattitude in 2012 in pursuit of her dream of preserving a craft that is at risk of disappearing and bringing about positive change in the lives of weavers in Ecuador. Making a profit does not matter to her. The product is not scalable, nor does she want that: all Montecristi hats are unique and are made in the private homes of selected artisans. Therefore, the hats are a limited edition and cannot be mass produced. In return, it is possible to customise it in one’s own style with an elegant or modern design. At least nine people work on each individual Montecristi hat – each specialising in crucial skills. However, due to the bent posture and required concentration, they do not weave more than three to five hours a day.
For a superfino, the finest of the finest, the master weavers weave metres of straw so delicately that the material feels like woven linen. A work of art that comes at a price. Only a handful of weavers on the coast are even capable of weaving a fino – let alone a superfino. Angelica knows them all personally, even lived with their families for a while, and also keeps in touch with them on FaceTime every day.
A BIT OF MAGIC
The custom-made one-off pieces by The Hattitude are not sold in the shops. Instead, an artisan will hand over the hat directly to the new owner. The latter is given an opportunity to look over artisans’ shoulders during the lengthy process of making the hat, via video call in Angelica’s studio in Basel. Angelica raves about these experiences: “Watching a masterpiece being woven live is incredible – such dexterity and quick precision. And it is also nice for the customer to get to know the craftswomen in Ecuador personally. You immerse yourself in their world, an almost magical encounter.”
Although Panama hats provide a livelihood for Ecuadorians, fewer than a dozen weavers remain who are able to produce the best Montecristi superfinos. Production in Ecuador is declining due to economic problems and competition from mass production. It takes many years of training and experience to enable the weavers to make hats of high quality and artistic originality in the traditional way. Angelica’s vision is to support the Ecuadorian families involved in the production and to preserve this tradition, which has been recognised by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage, as well as to promote the transfer of knowledge to the next generations through school education. Angelica: “In a world where everything must be available immediately and now, respect for nature, social responsibility and the preservation of traditions must once again be valued.”
We were able to meet Angelica Oschatz during a motorised excursion to the five-star Hotel Villa Honegg. We would like to thank them for their hospitality.